Movie executive holds reins with steady hands

Times Staff Writer

A competitive horseback rider, Elizabeth Gabler is not intimidated by high hurdles or obstacle courses.

That's served her career as a movie executive too. Gabler nurtured "Mrs. Doubtfire" for six years before it hit the big screen. "Cast Away" took a year longer, but garnered an Academy Award nomination for Tom Hanks and $430 million worldwide at the box office.

Since taking over six years ago as president of Fox 2000, a division of 20th Century Fox, Gabler has revived the once-ailing label with some unlikely hits, including the lusty drama of an adulterous wife in "Unfaithful," the redemptive Johnny Cash biopic "Walk the Line" and last summer's morality tale "The Devil Wears Prada."

"An obstacle is just something for her to overcome," said "Prada" producer Karen Rosenfeldt, who has known the 50-year-old executive since they were assistants at talent agency ICM. "It's like her horseback riding -- she just keeps jumping."

The bar this weekend is set particularly high. At a cost of about $100 million, the fantasy adventure "Eragon" is the most expensive film ever released by Fox 2000.

Based on a bestselling young adult novel, "Eragon" is set in a mythical land of dragons and evil kingdoms, giving it a whiff of "Harry Potter," "The Dragonriders of Pern Trilogy," and "The Lord of the Rings."

The film is tracking fairly well among young males, according to audience surveys, but Gabler is admittedly nervous about her first foray into the world of effects-laden fantasy.

"It's been an enormous challenge as far as the scope of the movie, keeping a level head and coordinating the various teams," she said in a recent telephone interview from London, where the film had its premiere. "It's really been an incredible learning experience."

The studio is pinning its hopes on the PG film becoming a franchise by striking a chord with young moviegoers, ages 9 to 15, who made the book, written by teenager Christopher Paolini, a bestseller.

"It is as close to a franchise movie that we have this holiday season," said Brandon Gray, president of Box Office Mojo, a box-office tracking firm.

Yet it faces a crowded weekend, up against children's tale "Charlotte's Web" and Will Smith's "The Pursuit of Happyness."

That means the Gabler household will be more on edge than usual.

"Friday night she starts to guesstimate," said Gabler's husband, Lee Gabler, a veteran TV agent at Creative Artists Agency. "Then she starts at 6:30 Saturday morning. She just lies [in bed] like a dead fish waiting for the sun to rise. At 8 she calls people to get the numbers. It's like a coffee klatch."

The oldest of six children, born to a doctor and a schoolteacher, Gabler grew up in Long Beach, but was not the stereotypical beach-loving blond. She loved books and learned to read by the age of 3. At UC Santa Barbara, she majored in English literature and discovered writer Jane Austen and poets Coleridge, Byron and Tennyson.

"The melodramatic way of writing was really fascinating to me," she said in a recent interview, reclining in a chintz armchair in her English cottage-styled office. "It evoked a whole other world."

From college she headed to Los Angeles to get a master's degree in creative writing. But through a friend and on a whim, she landed a job at ICM as an assistant to agent Jim Wiatt.

"She was bubbly, energetic and fun ... [But] I wasn't convinced that she was great agent material," said Wiatt, now chief executive of William Morris Agency Inc. "What distinguished her was her passion for material and being able to identify good ideas."

Gabler quickly rose to the rank of agent but it did not suit her. "It was the worst year of my life," she said. "There was a whole competitive, representation angle, which was not something I was particularly good at or cared about."

So she moved on, becoming a development executive at Columbia Pictures, before jumping to United Artists, where she learned the craft of storytelling from Hollywood legend Billy Wilder, who wrote and directed such classics as "Some Like It Hot" and "Sunset Boulevard." Wilder had been hired as a consultant.

Gabler also learned the politics of talent relations. One day, somebody went through UA's vaults looking for remake possibilities and suggested in a memo giving Wilder's iconic "The Apartment" another try.

Wilder was offended, telling the young executives: " 'What? I didn't do it right the first time?' " recalled Rosenfeldt, who said she and Gabler had thought the re-make was a terrible idea. "Beth turned to me and said, 'Never put anything like that on paper.' "

In 1988, Gabler's boss, Roger Birnbaum, left United Artists for Fox and quickly hired Gabler as a development executive. "When I left, I took two things with me: Elizabeth and "Mrs. Doubtfire" -- obviously the more valuable one was Lizzie," he said, adding that he had admired Gabler's strong point of view and her confidence to express it. "That is gold for any executive," said Birnbaum, now co-chairman of Spyglass Entertainment.

Birnbaum and Gabler were determined to make "Mrs. Doubtfire," but had been shot down by dozens of screenwriters who thought it was too similar to Dustin Hoffman's cross-dressing hit, "Tootsie." They finally sealed a deal when the right talent aligned: They introduced Robin Williams to director Chris Columbus at the Hotel Bel-Air and the two hit it off.

"Movies like the ones Beth has made don't just happen -- they are willed into being," said Jim Gianopolus, who is co-chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment along with Tom Rothman. "If she feels strongly about something, she won't go away. She has a great sense of relentlessness."

In December 1999, Rothman, then head of production at 20th Century Fox, asked Gabler to revamp Fox 2000, which had been adrift, making such expensive flops as "Anna and the King" and "Volcano" amid modest successes including "Soul Food" and "Never Been Kissed."

Hoping to have a baby soon, Gabler was reluctant.

"Being president of a division, I would have to deal with administrative things and it would take my focus off the creative process that I loved," Gabler said. "It was triple the responsibility."

But in the end, she couldn't resist. "There were many more people who were the hare and I was the tortoise," she said. "But I realized I would always regret it if I didn't take the chance."

Gabler raised the division's profile by embracing the mantra that less is more. She slashed the division's 125 projects in development to 50. Today, Fox 2000 releases five to six movies a year compared with about 15 released by the studio's main division.

At the same time, she made time for her family. After Gabler had her daughter in 2002, Gianopolus and Rothman agreed to allow her to work from home on Fridays -- a privilege she plans to expand upon next year when the Gabler family moves to its 15-acre ranch in Santa Barbara.

She brings a homey feel to the workplace. People on her staff say she's an empowering boss. Talent likes her steady hand.

"It's always terrifying to make a movie and worse if you have somebody standing behind you with their teeth chattering," "Prada" director David Frankel said. "With Elizabeth, it's just the opposite. It was having somebody with a hot chocolate and a pat on the back saying 'Go get 'em.' "

That's not to say Gabler hasn't had her share of turkeys, including "Chasing Papi," "Down With Love," and most recently, Ridley Scott's romantic comedy "A Good Year."

Yet she has shown that moderately budgeted adult-driven narratives can make money. "Prada" has grossed $315 million worldwide, while "Walk the Line" and last year's drama "The Family Stone" took in $186 million and $92 million, respectively.

"It takes a certain kind of tenacity to make the financial people realize that this can pay off for them," said Meryl Streep, who played "Prada's" Miranda Priestly, an ambitious fashion magazine editor. "I was thrilled that she took a chance to have something that has women in the protagonist roles."

Gabler's next passion project is the challenging "Life of Pi," based on the bestselling book about a young boy stuck on a raft with a tiger, hyena, zebra and an orangutan.

Perhaps even tougher still: "The Book Thief," a project based on a novel about the power of words and imagination. Set in World War II Germany, the book is narrated by Death, who tells the story of a young Jewish girl who is taken to live with a Gentile couple and finds solace in books she saves from Nazi bonfires.

Gabler concedes it's often hard to gauge what will hit a chord with audiences. But she enjoys the thrill of finding out.

"In my wildest dreams, I don't think I ever let myself think ["Prada"] would get to $100 million," she said. "You always hope, but it has to be such a perfect combination, an alignment of everything."

lorenza.munoz@latimes.com

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